“Eye of the Beholder” still stands as one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone for a couple of reasons. One is the message of the episode, which is where the beauty lies. (Uh, in the eye of the beholder.) The other reason, of course, is that twist.
And even though that episode is…wow, 60 years years old, I’m still not going to spoil it for y’all, just in case you haven’t seen it. (And if you haven’t seen it, then what are you waiting for? Go watch it and at least ten other episodes, and then rejoin this discussion.) I will say, though, that the basic premise is that a woman is undergoing plastic surgery–her eleventh–to make herself look acceptable. Not even beautiful, mind you, but just tolerable to view.
The woman at the center of this week’s episode of American Horror Stories, Virginia (Judith Light), is also interested in plastic surgery. Unlike Janet, the protagonist of “Eye of the Beholder,” though, there is nothing particularly negative about Virginia’s appearance. She’s just gotten older, and her face reflects that. However, if you go by our advertising, with its beauty products that claim to be “age-defying” and just downright anti-aging, then you can understand what her problem is.
Virginia has invested a lot of money in those products, but they haven’t delivered the miracles their ads promise. And the reason why those ads are so potent is that the society in which we live judges us for showing our age. Tabloids, for instance, love to run stories about stars who have aged “poorly.”
But it’s a trap, of course. If celebrities try to stave off the ravages of Father Time, then those same tabloids trumpet headlines about botched surgeries and overdone filler. Or surgeries that went well–they also love to talk about that. (Note: I almost hollered in the checkout line this week because a tabloid had the gall to print a story about celebrities that have experienced fat-shaming as if that same rag hasn’t run like, a million stories about stars’ lumpy thighs or whatever.)
Virginia is a widow, with apparently few to no friends, and she ties her feelings about her appearance to her fear of being alone. She’s got a crush on neighbor Bernie (Todd Waring), and when her stepdaughter Fay (Britt Lower) mentions that he frequents the local wine shop every week, Virginia engineers a meet-cute. Unfortunately, everything about the encounter is humiliating.
First of all, Virginia doesn’t look great. I don’t mean that as a dig at her aging face, but rather the way she has gussied herself up for the meet. She wears heavy makeup, including falsies that are way over the top for a casual trip to a store. It’s part and parcel of her desperation, though, which seeps through the whole experience.
That reaches its height when Bernie reveals that he’s actually at the store with another woman. That’s uncomfortable for Virginia, but it gets even worse when she realizes she knows her. Cassie (Cornelia Guest) is actually Virginia’s former college classmate. Even though they’re peers, though, Cassie looks years younger than Virginia. (Guest is about fifteen years younger than Light.)
Virginia demands to know her “secret,” and Cassie begrudgingly gives it to her, with the caveat that the information comes at the expense of Virginia’s further pursuit of Bernie. The secret is Dr. Perle (Rebecca Dayan), who runs a very exclusive business. In fact, Virginia practically has to beg her way into Perle’s practice.
As for what Perle does exactly, she doesn’t trouble herself or her patients with any specifics. Her method is proprietary, she explains, just like the formula for Coke. The warning signs are there, and only get bolder when, for example, Fay tells her that Perle doesn’t appear to be an accredited surgeon. Instead, she has a “certificate of medical science.” In addition, the little history Fay can find limits itself to multiple malpractice suits.
Virginia shrugs this off, though, just as she does when her business manager tells her she can’t afford Perle’s steep fee. Apparently, Virginia’s late husband left her with a mountain of debt. She doesn’t care, though, and tells him that she’ll just “cut back.” We can see her inability to be realistic when we learn that her idea of belt-tightening is driving a Mercedes instead of a Bentley.
That’s because nothing matters to her as much as being young and desirable. Well, looking young and desirable. That “nothing,” by the way, includes a healthy relationship with Fay. For instance, when Fay is upset because the surgical costs mean that she might have to drop out of college, Virginia lashes out at her.
Even though they resolve their differences, that tension makes it easy for Dr. Perle to suggest that Virginia finish her recovery at a special place. (Never go with a mysterious and/or shady doctor to a special place.) Yes, the red flags keep waving, but Virginia resolutely ignores them. Whether it’s the fact that the bandages feel awfully thick or that it certainly feels like Perle did a more extensive surgery than Virginia expected, she doesn’t care.
It helps that Dr. Perle is everything Virginia wants to be, like young, beautiful, and self-assured. Further, by attaching exclusivity to her process, she makes it even more tempting. So while the twist in this episode owes a lot to “Eye of the Beholder,” the ending also reminds me of “The Hunt,” another Twilight Zone episode, and one of my favorites.
In it, a character says, in part, that a man “will walk right into Hell with both eyes open.” In her pursuit of beauty and ultimately love, including self-love, Virginia’s focus is so single-minded that she doesn’t even realize where she’s headed. Then again, perhaps it doesn’t really matter what happens to her. Whether she lives or dies, she has to do it with herself.
8/10 – As this is reminiscent of “Eye of the Beholder,” I appreciated that it wasn’t a total copy. I did think it went a twist too far at the end, but for the most part, it was a compelling watch. Finally, Light’s ability to portray her character’s vulnerability made me sympathize with Virginia, even though she could be unpleasant at times.